Paul Giles, “Sentimental Posthumanism: David Foster Wallace”

For Paul Giles, Wallace’s works envisage a world in which technology has flattened the playing field of institutional access, privilege and perspective, such that the “geographic materialism” and sublimated institutional cartography that made claims about the value of urban and rural spaces of the post-modern era are occluded entirely. Wallace’s post-postmodernism moves beyond spacial perspectives, as distributed networks operate in all geographic spaces simultaneously.

Giles mentions Wallace’s assertion in “E Unibus Pluram…” that today’s social stratification is divorced of geography, and rather rests on generational distinctions. We bond over what television shows we enjoy, not by what part of the country, or even world, we are from. Furthermore, Wallace rejects liberal humanism’s critique of technology, television specifically (but also information technology, and developments in biology and genetics), and instead focuses on how these developments have left humans uncertain and confused regarding their epistemological status. Wallace’s works are highly aware technology’s growing prevalence and power in our environments and the blurring of human and machine. This awareness is the foundation for post-humanism, which explores not the end of the human or of humanity, but rather the end of the sovereignty of the human subject that is assumed in liberal humanism. Instead of a focusing on multiculturalism or diversity, the post-human writer is concerned with the ontology of the human as a cyborg and the “revised relationship between mind and matter” that accompanies the rise of technology (329).

Informatics is not the only face of post-humanism and post-postmodernism. DFW immerses readers in worlds where post-human sensibility has filtered into everyday life, such that the narrow interpretation of the cyborg is expanded to include a human sentimentalism and philosophical historicity.

“Many of Wallace’s stories take issue explicitly with the reflexive dimensions of postmodernism, seeking to use human perspectives to subvert a culture of corporate images in which the legends of TV advertising have become naturalized” (331). Wallace recognizes that reflexivity and irony have become corporate and mechanized, such that they fail to reveal anything of substance; however, he relies on these same concepts to relay the post-human world. Wallace requires of his characters a certain emotional risk and connectivity in order to reject this commodification (much in the same way that the addicts of AA must connect in order to reject their addictions).  In doing so, Wallace holds on to a sort cultural idealism in a “radically alien technological environment” (332). Wallace recognized that literature requires “a willingness to disclose yourself, open yourself up in a spiritual and emotion ways that risk making you look banal or melodramatic or naive or unhip or sappy, and to ask the reader to really feel something.” This is why he feels that the novel is particularly capable of capturing the human nostalgia and sentimentalism that still exists in the technologically transformed post-human world.

Giles considers this a “validation of the common sentiment” and relays that Wallace’s works seek to uncover this sentiment while simultaneously relying on the repetition present in modern culture to dissect the world. He uses recursive structures to create a text in which “no outside is readily available.” Thus his characters are posited within the belly of the recursive, distribute digital networks (as well as the commercial, commodified, globalized) that mark the social, political and geographical landscape of the post-humanist era. For Wallace, the possibility of transcendence (of breaking free of the commercialization and industrialization of culture) is obtained “by assimilating and refracting [science/technology/industry] in elliptical forms” (333).

Giles comments that Wallace’s genius is that he begins in abstraction, and then uses the humanity of his characters to make inferences and to subvert larger technocratic patterns (333). Wallace’s varied academic background of not only philosophy and literature, but also logic, math and science is likely the reason he is so effectively able to do this.

Giles recognizes, as we have, that the structure of IJ mirrors the recursive, labyrinth-like structure of addictions and obsessions present in American culture. “You seek to vanquish and transcend the limited self whose limits made the game possible in the first place (IF 84).” Wallace’s excessive use of adjectives and pop culture neologisms speaks to the “commodified and commercially overdetermined” nature of objects in the Infinite Jest world—everything (eg: tennis clothing, food, tech-equipment) is presented “as if refracted through the prism of television advertising” (334).

For Giles, Wallace’s ambition is to poeticize technology—to oscillate between the abstraction of techno binary language and the affective content of human emotion. The human and the abstract are not mutually exclusive categories in Wallace’s world. He is interested in “formal limits and their transgressions, between free play and the closed structures” (335). His concern is with not only the dehumanization (with the parts of culture that “defamiliarizes the human body and represents it cartographically”), but also with a nostalgia for a more traditional human identity. For Wallace, to be human is to search for the fragments of authentic personality amid the digitalization of culture and the body.

Regarding communication and language, Giles finds that Wallace falls in the middle between strict prescriptive language and the more “descriptive” style that accepts language evolution. For Wallace, the communities and social groups to form that he clearly finds important to the human self are contingent on a shared language and thus, whatever form the language takes, if it serves a community, then Wallace is OK with it.

Wallace work is structured with an overarching dramatic irony, where the reader gradually becomes aware of the characters being caught up in labyrinthine systems of which they necessarily remain largely unaware. This recreates for readers the sense knowingness and insecurity that marks the distributive, post-human age. “The points of interface between the self and other are highlighted here as crucial nodes of intersection that allow the self to map its place in the world” (338). Wallace recognizes that technology has transformed the various “others” used to determine the self, as they have been decentered and strewn into a network of nodes that transcends geography and formal institutional structures. (eg: One wouldn’t usually associated Ennet House and Enfield, yet despite what would appear to be vastly different groups of people, they share multiple common domains.) The struggle for Wallace’s characters is to come to terms with the displacement of autonomy (because they cannot concretely face or determine the “others” that help form the self) and erasure of safe domestic boundaries (geographic and institutional transcendence).

Giles major points seek to illuminate the fact that Wallace doesn’t believe that humanity is lost in the face of rising technology and the digitization of culture. His post-humanism is one that finds few things mutually exclusive—one can be both sentimental and technological, naïve and scientific, and the challenge of the era is the search for authentic part of the self. His fiction mediates the dynamics of technology–globalization, of mass media and commercialization—the ways it has changed human consciousness, and the ways that we map ourselves in the distributed network.

While I agree with most all of Gile’s points in this essay, I find that he glosses over some of the darker aspects of Wallace’s fiction. For instance, the drug use and addiction, human suffering and Hal’s ultimate fate in Infinite Jest. Perhaps this is due to the fact that his essay overlooks all of Wallace’s works while positing them among other post-human and previous post-modern writers. Nonetheless, I found that his points here felt diluted because of the lack of depth into one particular work.

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One Response to Paul Giles, “Sentimental Posthumanism: David Foster Wallace”

  1. mattdice says:

    Great choice for your article, this really opened my eyes to some more of the themes that Wallace is using. I think the dichotomy of characters that Wallace uses show that there is a huge difference between truly being human and what is portrayed on TV. He splits the book into two different parts to show this. First, you have the recovering addicts and Don Gately in AA. These people show the real struggles of humans, and they show that humans aren’t perfect. These people are relatable because, even though I have never gone to AA, I can Identify with their problems of feeling lost or helpless at times. They talk about their emotions and thoughts all day long, which shows their genuineness and personalities.

    The other half of the spectrum goes over to “fake” people that seem way too perfect, like what we see on TV. The Incandenzas pretty much embody this. “Himself” is a god among men, having created the purest form of Entertainment and the first instance of perpetual energy. Hal is almost annoyingly precocious and is both a genius in the classroom and on the tennis court. The Moms is probably the best example of a “television persona” because she is overly beautiful, overly loving, overly accepting, and overly tolerant to a parodic level, but it is obvious to pretty much everyone around her that this is some kind of OCD related mental illness. We cannot really relate to either of the parents, and we can relate to Hal because we are in his mind so much that we don’t really have a choice but to adapt to his way of thinking.

    Your summary gave me a whole new perspective on the Incandenza family as a “perfect” TV family that I never realized before. Wallace humanizes them by giving them problems like addiction or depression to make them more realistic, but his underlying message is still there.

    P.S. this whole “perfection vs. human” dichotomy is also embodied by Rod Tine, who is called “the God” but also keeps a lengthy log of his penis every day. It might be Wallace’s way of saying that no one is perfect, even “the God.”


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